Coffee, death, and the New York Times Well blog

Gary Schwitzer is the founder and publisher of HealthNewsReview. He has covered health care news almost exclusively since 1973. Here is his online bio.  He tweets as @garyschwitzer or as @HealthNewsRevu.

A New York Times newsletter headline writer tried to be cute:

 

No, it’s not so simple.

And, no, the study did not find that those who drank moderate amounts of coffee have a lower mortality risk than non-coffee drinkers.

That is a cause-and-effect statement, and this observational study didn’t find that, didn’t prove that, but only pointed to a statistical association.

The actual online version of the story, linked to from the teaser above, hedged and danced with various wordsmithing.  Excerpts:

  • “That morning cup of coffee may be linked to a lower risk of dying”
  • “There are, however, major caveats to interpreting this research… This is an observational study, which means the data cannot conclusively prove that coffee itself lowers the risk of dying; there may be other lifestyle factors contributing to that lower mortality risk among people who drink coffee, like a healthy diet or a consistent exercise routine.”

But whom you choose to interview also affects the message.  And the Times chose to interview one of the editors of the Annals of Internal Medicine, which published the paper.  And that editor gushed with extraordinary glee for a journal editor.

“It’s huge. There are very few things that reduce your mortality by 30 percent,” said Dr. Christina Wee, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a deputy editor of the scientific journal where the study was published.”

Except that, again, the paper didn’t prove a reduction in mortality by any percent.

As I’ve written before, coffee is the poster child for miscommunicated observational research.  But during all of the COVID craziness of the recent past, it has taken a back seat. God help us if this marks a comeback for crappy coffee headlines.

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